India’s Vaccine Diplomacy: What Went Wrong?

On the 16th of January 2021, India began the world’s largest inoculation drive against the pandemic to vaccinate around 300 million people in its priority groups. The programme began with immense hope and excitement and was seen as a step closer to the end of the sanitary crisis which had claimed over a million lives in India by January 2021. With the locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine - known as Covishield, and the domestically made Covaxin, the country aimed to vaccinate most of its healthcare and front line workers in the first phase of its national vaccination drive. While the process should have brought stability and progress in the war against the COVID-19, the first quarter of 2021 proved to be much deadlier and chaotic than the previous year. Although its role as a prominent vaccine supplier to numerous nations in the beginning of this year hailed accolades from across the world, India suffered a surge in domestic demand. With the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, Serum Institute of India (SII), it was struggling to provide sufficient jabs for its own citizens. Was India’s vaccine diplomacy ill-managed? Maybe. Was the current situation avoidable? Definitely.

India’s Initial Dominance

The development of various vaccines by numerous countries over the last year promised a glimpse of hope worldwide, starting with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine approved by the UK for emergency use. Soon after its authorisation, a 90 year old woman became the first ever person to receive a COVID-19 jab, an ecstatic development in the world’s fight against the pandemic. India, too, announced the use of two vaccines- the Covishield, produced locally by the SII, and Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the country would commence its inoculation programme with the high-priority groups and frontline workers. India, being the largest vaccine manufacturer and exporter, instinctively announced its pivotal participation in providing these shots globally as an act of goodwill. UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix extolled the country for its ‘longstanding and steadfast support of peacekeeping’ when the nation gifted 200,000 doses to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNPKF) worldwide.

COVID-19 doses have been sent to its immediate neighbours, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and the Maldives. It had also sent around 2 million shots to Brazil by mid-January, and to date, 95 countries have been supplied. It is a well-established fact that soft power is a critical tool in the Modi-led government’s diplomacy, and he is widely known for his emphasis on building India’s rapport with prominent global leaders. It is therefore plausible to assume that the pandemic would be a key event in India’s diplomatic endeavours.

What went wrong?

Although the goodwill was applauded globally by the likes of the UN and countries such as the US and Brazil, India was soon faced with a severe shortage of vaccines for its own citizens. With huge and densely populated states like Maharashtra reporting around 20,000 cases a day in March and cases in Delhi rising from around 2,000 to 25,000 within 3 weeks, things only started to unwind devastatingly in the country. This situation was not helped by the lack of responsibility shown by citizens. The scarcity, along with events such as the holy festival of Kumbh, and the numerous election rallies in multiple states where millions of people flooded the streets, only led the country towards devastation. These events occurred just as the third phase of inoculations to vaccinate adults aged between 18 to 44 had begun.

Even though these incidents disrupted India’s path towards a future free of COVID-19, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the SII, played a crucial role in delaying the inoculation drive in the nation. It partnered with the University of Oxford in April 2020 to manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine under the name Covishield in India. Before the third phase could roll out on the 1st of May to vaccinate millions, numerous states reported insufficient vials to carry out the programme, meaning that it delayed by another week in most cases. Just as things were beginning to get worse, Adar Poonawalla, the head of the largest vaccination supplier, bolted to the UK amidst claims that he was being threatened by “Chief Ministers…, heads of business conglomerates and others.” Amidst a shortage of vaccines, Poonawalla was accorded ‘Y’ category security, which entailed 5 armed commandos being with him at all times. In addition to this, the SII unveiled its plan to invest £240 million in the UK; possibly to meet its international contractual obligations to manufacture vaccine supplies. Bharat Biotech, a Hyderabad-based firm responsible for the production of the country’s domestic doses of Covaxin, met with a severe deficiency of essential components required to increase the production, mainly due to the restrictions imposed on the export of raw materials by the United States. After it eased the aforementioned ban, both Bharat Biotech and the SII looked forward to increasing production to meet the country’s demands.

In addition to these factors, the most prominent and unfortunate reason for the downfall of India in the past few months has been the lack of coordination between the central and the state governments. Ever since the beginning of the pandemic last year, the ruling authorities at both levels portrayed a lack of coordination and management, as was evident through the exodus of migrant workers in 2020. Currently, the central government and the Delhi government are in an altercation at the Supreme Court regarding the acute shortage of critical supplies such as oxygen, vaccines, and hospital beds in the city. While the centre is responsible for providing adequate resources across the country, the Delhi’s negligence towards the worsening situation in the city and its consistent criticism of the centre deteriorated the capital’s condition.

What Next?

Despite the nation’s efforts to provide access to the vaccinefor the world, India’s priority should have been to inoculate its vast population of 1.3 billion people first.It has become clear that the government’s “India First” ideology has been put to test in the recent months. Now, with the exemption from the US ban on the export of raw materials for COVID-19 related supplies, the nation’s focus should be to immunize the majority of its population at the earliest opportunity. This would certainly require massive cooperation between the SII, Bharat Biotech and the central government.

Poonawalla’s choice to flee, though not a grave blunder from an entrepreneurial viewpoint, will still be seen by some as him abandoning his country at its most vulnerable. This has been considered an unreliable and reckless move on his part. With several countries rushing to India’s aid with all kinds of relief supplies worth millions of dollars, the country must hastily distribute the supplies to grief-stricken regions.

Now, more than ever, with millions of positive cases and more hundreds of thousands of deaths, India is in its hour of need. It is urgent to disassociate from argumentative politics and come together against the deadly virus which is claiming more lives with every minute that passes.

Written by Shubhangi Misra

Shubhangi Misra is a columnist at DecipherGrey.

Photographie: Sarabjit Singh|Tribune India|